The choice of holster is as important, if not more important, than your choice of firearm. A good gun in a bad holster can be compared to a race car with lousy tires. What may initially seem insignificant is actually a vital part of your safety equipment.
There are many facets to a holster’s performance. Obviously, it holds the gun, but it needs to do so properly - not too tightly and not too loosely. If your gun is too loose, at best, it can move and be in a bad position, and at worst it can fall out. I don’t want to be put in the position of trying to explain to the little old lady at the checkout counter that I am one of the good guys and that there is no need to worry, as I pick up my gun from the floor. Not to mention trying to figure out what to say to a responding police officer!
A holster that is too tight could prevent a proper grip, throw off your draw, and derail your shooting. I have seen some holsters that were so tight that it was nearly impossible to retrieve the firearm. The better the “boning,” the less tight the holster needs to be. A quality holster is fitted to the gun by boning the features of the gun into the leather, which entails pushing the leather into the feature shapes of the gun with a tool, while the holster is wet and is being formed. A properly boned holster will adhere to the trigger guard, slide stop, safety, and other physical features detailed into the leather. The boning provides the fit around the gun and eliminates the need for a strap to hold the gun in.
Good tests for holster fit are 1. to run at full speed and 2. to jump up and down. The gun should remain firmly in the holster, yet not so tightly as to impede the speed of the draw. If you find yourself tugging too hard to lift your gun, you will need to loosen it. If you have an adjustable holster, the adjustment screw will change the tension easily. If the holster does not have an adjustment screw, and if it is only slightly too tight, there is a simple home remedy. Wrap your gun (or dummy gun) with plastic wrap, and then several layers of masking tape (I use about four layers) and leave the gun in the holster overnight. The extra thick fit should loosen up the holster. If you don’t use plastic wrap first, you may need to get the tape and glue off with some adhesive remover. If four layers of tape does not work, try again with eight layers the next night. If that doesn’t work, send the holster back to the manufacturer if it’s new. If it’s too old to send back, you will need to buy another holster.
In addition to simply holding your gun, the holster needs to do so comfortably. How well the holster and belt supports the weight of the gun has a lot to do with how comfortable your carry rig will be. Thick, supportive leather in the holster — and especially the belt — will keep your gun positioned upright and minimize it flip-flopping around. Nothing is more aggravating to me than my gun flopping around on my belt, not to mention what that does to reduce concealability.
While frequently overlooked, gun belts are extremely important as they greatly contribute to comfort and security. For maximum support, the belt should be double thick to help distribute the weight of the gun. I prefer the buckle holes to be place 3/4-inch apart rather than the standard 1-inch. The shorter distance between holes offers more gradual adjustment for a better fit. Concealed Carry Clothiers offers gun belts with those features and even added a valuable twist — They reduced the thickness of the belt to a single ply in the front which eliminates the thick “gun belt” look. Whichever belt you choose be sure that it is properly sized for the holster’s belt loops. If you have a 1.5-inch belt opening in your holster, it won’t work well with a 1.25-inch belt. I have seen lots of quality holsters used with wrong size or low quality belts, only to watch the shooter struggle with draws and reholstering.
If all that’s not enough, a holster needs to do all of its jobs with a high degree of concealability. This is where things get tricky. Concealability is derived from the person’s body size and shape, the holster’s placement on the body, and from the size and shape of the gun. What works for one person may not conceal as well on another, and what is comfortable for one, may not be for someone else.
Holsters are variously designed for a “straight drop”, “cant forward”, and what some call a “radical cant.” Some holsters also offer adjustable cants. The forward cant pushes the butt of the gun upward, reducing the amount of the grip that sticks out the back. The greater the cant, the more concealable the gun, but if its too far forward getting a proper grip becomes difficult. With the more extreme cants, I find it beneficial to bend over slightly at the waist, which offers a better angle to grip the gun. Personally, I find that the best compromise between concealability and access is the “radical cant,” which angles the gun forward about 20 degrees. It’s enough to keep the butt of a full-sized gun from sticking out the back, but still allows a good grip.
A more minor design element is the “rise,” or how high the gun sits in relationship to the belt. For taller folks, the high rise might be better, but I find I get maximum concealability and minimal movement with standard, non-high-rise designs. The higher the gun is in relation to the belt, the more flip-flop movement there can be. For short people like me, the added height above the belt makes drawing more difficult, as you have to lift even higher to clear the holster.
One feature that inspires some level of controversy is the thumb break. While it may appear to be essential to hold the gun in the holster, it is, in fact, not necessary for that purpose. Quality holsters retain the gun quite efficiently by their fit and boning. The open-top design is a testament to their retention ability. The true intent of a thumb break is to deter a gun grab. The snap reduces the ability for someone to grab your pistol from its holster. While it may be possible for someone else to release the snap, pull the gun through the strap, or even break the holster, the extra safety device does act as a deterrent, slowing down the gun grab or possibly even preventing it totally.
The controversy comes in determining if that advantage is worth the trade-off. The thumb break does add some time to the draw. With lots of continuing practice, it may add only a fraction of a second, but it is yet one more thing to practice and therefore one more thing that could go wrong. If you don’t practice, you will add significant time to your draw at a moment when time is of the essence. Another argument against the thumb break is that if your dominant hand is hurt, using your non-dominant hand (which can be weaker) to draw from a dominant-side holster may be made more difficult by a thumb break. This scenario makes a great argument for carrying a back-up weapon accessible to your support hand.
The thumb-break issue boils down to one question; how likely are you to have someone try to take your pistol from your holster? Compared to private citizens, police officers are far more prone to having the gun taken from them. While the average person may never come into direct contact with a “bad guy” in his or her lifetime, the police officer will. Secondly, the police officer’s gun is fully exposed to view, while the average person’s gun is usually not known to anyone since it is most often concealed. Most assailants will never know that its there until it’s too late. An exception to that would be if the altercation starts as a hand-to-hand fight. In the duration of the tussle, the concealed holster is very likely to be discovered, and even possibly dislodged. In that case, the thumb break may go a long way to delay or completely prevent the gun grab. Other than that, the average person is not likely to be in a situation where a thumb break would be essential to survival. On the other hand, if you are willing to practice enough on a continuing basis to make the release of the thumb break second nature, it does add one more level of security.
There is no formula for putting all of these elements together. Lots of us have a drawer full of holsters that we like and dislike to some degree. Unfortunately, it’s a try and see situation. The good news is that many quality custom holster manufacturers accept returns if you are not satisfied. It’s worth buying from those companies just for that opportunity, even if you have to pay more.
While leather dominates the market, a new material, Kydex, has made significant inroads in the last few years. Kydex is a plastic material that has good molding and machining qualities. Like almost anything else, there are those who love it and those who hate it. The advantages of Kydex are that it is relatively inexpensive to manufacture, provides a fast draw because there is less friction inside the holster, and can be designed to be very adjustable.
The expense of Kydex holsters is lower than leather because of the low cost of plastic versus quality leather, as well as the reduction in manufacturing costs and time. Leather manufacturing necessitates that large amounts of the work be done by hand, while Kydex is often machine-made. Kydex does not need much maintenance because it’s plastic. The adjustable tension found on many Kydex holsters, combined with a design that locks in the pistol but releases as the gun is pulled out, allows a fast draw. One of the best features of Kydex is its ability to be designed in a manner that allows tremendous adjustability. Since Kydex is a hard plastic, threaded plates and nuts can be molded in, allowing interchangeable and adjustable belt loops. Some manufacturers offer belt loops of different sizes, so the holster can be used on 1.5 inch through 1 inch belts. Belt loops can be exchanged for J-clips, and it is even possible to change the holster from a belt side to an “inwaistband” design. By placing multiple fastening bolts in different locations, the height of the “ride” as well as the cant are highly customizable.
There are two disadvantages to Kydex: lack of flexibility and noise. Because the material is a hard plastic, it will never mold to your body with use like leather will. Unlike Kydex, leather holsters tend to become more comfortable over time as they mold to your body. While some people find that Kydex’s inflexibility makes the holster uncomfortable, especially when worn “in-waist-band” (IWB), this is not my experience. I often wear an IWB Kydex holster for 8 to 10 hours a day with a full-size gun, and find it quite comfortable. Again, personal taste and preference comes into play.
One drawback to Kydex that cannot be discounted is noise. While a leather holster is nearly silent during the draw, the same cannot be said for Kydex. There is a slight sound made as the gun rubs against the hard plastic, and there is a definite noise as the gun clears the molded indentations. While this is not too loud, if you need a quieter draw, stick with leather.
No matter what material you choose, there are some features that are a must for a holster to be considered suitable for carry purposes.
The holster must cover the entire length of the barrel. If not, the front sight can easily catch on the holster as you attempt to draw. You can put a short gun into a long holster, such as a 4-inch gun into a holster designed for a 5-inch, but not the other way around. There are many holsters that have the barrel sticking through. These may be acceptable for range use, but they are not suited for carry.
A second “must” feature is the holster’s ability to remain open while the gun is not holstered. This is vital because if the holster collapses it will require two hands to reholster. Not only do you endanger yourself because of lasering, you are at a severe disadvantage when dealing with an attacker. Holstering a gun into a collapsed holster requires extra attention, and will distract you from your more important task. It is essential that a belt holster be made of sufficiently thick and stiff leather to remain open. For IWB use, the holster needs to be reinforced. For the most part, this is not an issue for Kydex holsters, as the stiff plastic remains open. Talk to the holster manufacturer and make sure it fits all of your needs before you buy.
The last, but certainly not least, important feature to look for is the ability to get a full grip while the gun is holstered. A good draw starts with a good grip. Be sure that you can reach around the entire grip and place your hand properly up against the bottom of the trigger guard.
One feature that I insist on is a body protector. This is a tang that is extended upwards beyond the side of the holster that rests against the body. Not only does this keep the gun from making my shirts dirty, it offers three significant advantages. Reholstering is easier with a body protector because you can motion the gun sideways, pointing downwards, (not towards your body), pressing sideways against the protector, and use it to guide the gun into the holster in the proper direction. Second, it keeps the shirt from being pushed down into the holster, which would make reholstering or drawing difficult. Third, it protects the gun from body oils, sweat and the salt that the body secretes. The tang also provides an additional advantage for guns that have external safeties, because the body protector prevents your torso from accidentally releasing the safety during normal movement.
Women have additional holster considerations because of their body shape. Often, the placement and cant angle of men’s holsters are uncomfortable for women and are difficult to draw from since womens’ waist lines are often higher than mens’, and may angle inwards. Some holster manufacturers such as Fist, Inc.21 and Mitch Rosen Extraordinary Gunleather, LLC22 make holsters designed specifically for women.
I find that with holsters, as with most things, you get what you pay for. The best-fitting and most comfortable holsters that I own, I bought from custom manufacturers. They did cost more and I had to wait longer to get them, but I will wear them for years to come. I already have too many holsters relegated to the dresser drawer, not to buy right the first time.